Ten Challenges Facing Higher Education

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I’m going to depart from my reviews today to talk about a different part of my life. I’ve spent my working life in collegiate ministry on college and university campuses. My current position involves leading an effort to support emerging scholars who are followers of Christ in navigating the pathway of their calling. I cannot think of a more challenging time for colleges and universities and for those who would pursue their calling in these institutions. I wanted to write today particularly for those who don’t work in higher education to foster understanding of the challenges the campus is facing. Here are ten that come to mind. Each has merited whole books. I’ll give them at most a few sentences.

  1. Mission. Despite the myriad of verbiage you may hear in public pronouncements and on websites and admissions materials, there is a crisis in understanding what a university is for. I hear everything from educating for citizenship to training people for the high tech jobs of the future. Businesses, governmental entities and social advocacy groups all are trying to shape that mission to their own ends.
  2. A Crisis of Epistemology. The irony is that the relativism of the post-modernism of the 1980’s and 1990’s, with its suspicion of truth and how it may be known and its analysis that truth is defined by whoever is in power, has spread to our whole society. Truth is whatever my tribal group says and the facts be damned! Scholarly work is now on the receiving end where peer-reviewed research is scorned in preference to the latest internet post with any tone of authority.
  3. Cancel Culture rather than Scholarship that Pursues Truth Where it Leads. This flows from the previous point. In recent years, speakers with points of view (usually conservative) were shouted down or prevented from speaking. Research that questioned accepted norms of a discipline would often be refused publication or the researcher denounced. Now conservatives are having their day, passing laws in state legislatures about what must be taught and not taught, often in response to university administrations who issued similar dictates to their faculty. None of it fosters a spirit of fearless inquiry.
  4. The Exodus of Faculty and the Crisis of Adjunctification. The COVID pandemic has facilitated the departure of faculty who find their lifestyle unsustainable with increased demands of in-person and online instruction and the increased presence of alienated or emotionally struggling students. Faculty of color are leaving at higher rates. Colleges continue to ask faculty to do more and replace tenure track positions with adjunct faculty or contracted lecturers. Increasingly, I recommend that most graduate students ought to have some other work aspiration than academic work in a university. But this leaves serious questions to be asked about the quality of education, the future of academic research, and what will happen when enough people decide to withhold their labor.
  5. College Costs. I think as a society we ought to be moving toward the support of some form of post-secondary education for all of our citizens. But this means getting a handle on the costs of education. What I will argue is that university faculty are not the problem. Many have invested at least a dozen years beyond secondary education in their training. Many could earn far more in industry. And the cost of their salaries is not the big issue. On many campuses, if one studies the directories of non-academic units, one will be surprised at the number of people employed in these positions and how bloated many administrations are with very high salaried people. Some of these positions exist because of unfunded government mandates.
  6. Equity in Admissions. Addressing college costs and funding is significant and under our current system, many of lower and medium income families will either conclude that it is not worth it, or carry debts that often take the first half of their working careers to liquidate and often delay home purchases and other major financial commitments. I don’t think everyone should go to college but one’s race or socioeconomic background should not be the deciding factor but rather aptitudes, gifts, and passions.
  7. The Demographic Cliff. After 2026, high school graduations will drop by ten percent due to declining birth rates. The pandemic has sped up that curve for many institutions where enrollments have already dropped significantly, especially at two-year institutions. This may actually be an opportunity for some institutions to streamline themselves and also to work on recruiting and retaining and offering financial aid for students who might not otherwise attend.
  8. The Student Mental Health Crisis. One university counseling center director told me they anticipated they would need to increase their staff by 50 percent to respond to student mental health needs. He discovered that they should have increased their staff by 100 percent and said that he had received similar reports from university mental health professionals across the country. The major concerns are anxiety and depression. This has been a growing crisis, even before the pandemic, which has made it much worse. Often university faculty are the first to encounter a student with these struggles.
  9. The Sexualized Campus. Beyond the sexual politics around orientation and sexual identity and the outcry about abortion rights lies the reality of a campus that is a highly sexualized place. The abuse scandals with student athletes is the most visible tip of the iceberg. Colleges are deeply conflicted around the question of consent and what constitutes it and how, in an atmosphere that normalizes both recreational sex and alcohol and substance use, consent is supposed to work.
  10. Fostering Robust Diversity with Civility. Campuses are incredibly diverse places with people of color and internationals from throughout the world. You have every political party and faith and sexual orientation and gender identity. It is our society in microcosm. Often it is a weak or brittle diversity as is true in most of our country–comfortable only with one’s own tribe. The challenge is to foster a climate, not of guarded and careful niceness that mutes distinctiveness, nor one of belligerence, but rather of both forthrightness about one’s own ideas and values and curiosity rather than judgment about those of others. Actually, I’ve often witnessed students rise admirably to this, often better than faculty and administration. Learning, and where it is needed, enforcing the practices of a principled civility, would seem vital for the development of future leaders.

It is a challenging time in higher education. Challenges can call out not only the worst but the best in human beings. I hope those outside the university will not use this as a chance to rail at higher education. The problems here mirror those in our society. If you are a person of faith, pray for those who lead universities, perhaps using this as a list of things to pray for. There are many Christians working in these universities in positions on faculty, in administration, on staff, or in support services. Two of my friends are presidents of major universities. They love God, they love the campus, they love what they teach and research, and the love and seek the common good and they do this amid these challenges.

Review: Asian American Histories of the United States

Asian American Histories of the United States, Catherine Ceniza Choy. Boston: Beacon Press, 2022.

Summary: The multiple, interleaved histories of the diverse Asian American peoples who migrated to, built communities in, contributed to, experienced discriminatory acts in the United States.

If you look closely at the title of this book, you will note that it is not a singular history but rather plural “histories.” Asian American peoples have been migrating to the United States from various countries in various waves over the past two hundred years. Catherine Ceniza Choy sets out in this work to sketch the outlines of these multiple stories. Two aspects of that methodology stood out to me in the reading. One was that she followed a reverse chronology, taking more recent key events and migrations first and working back in history to 1869. The other aspect of this work is that it is a people’s history, sketching not just the large contours and key events but the stories of individual persons and families–showing us the hopes, hardships, and particular experience of anti-Asian discrimination at different periods

She considers:

  • 2020. The outbreak of Anti-Asian hatred during the pandemic, blaming those of Asian appearance for the origin and spread of the disease. At the same time, Filipino nurses, a mainstay in many hospital systems, were dying in disproportionate numbers.
  • 1975. The journeys of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees to the United States at the fall of Saigon. We learn of Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian who became the “donut king.”
  • 1968. The student strike at San Francisco State College and the growth of the Asian American Movement on campuses across the country.
  • 1965. The passage of the Hart-Cellar Act equalizing the numbers of immigration visas for all countries, allowing for expanded immigration from Asian countries, both highly skilled entering the professions as well as less-educated working in businesses like nail salons and restaurants, including the Filipino nurses among which came the author’s parents.
  • 1965. The Delano Grape Strike was part of the birth of the United Farm Workers, led by Filipino American Larry Itliong, often overlooked in the histories that focus on Cesar Chavez.
  • 1953. Permission to adopt transracial children of mixed birth from Korea and Japan, left behind when American soldiers returned home. This history raises the specter of the anti-miscegenation laws preventing inter-racial marriages.
  • 1942. Executive Order 9066 resulting in the forced removal of Japanese Americans in western states, losing property and belongings without due process to be interned in camps. George Takei and many others have told the stories of these camps.
  • 1919. The story of both Korean Americans and Filipino Americans seeking independence from Japan and the United States, respectively. The U.S. would remain silent about Korea due to their own hegemony in the Philippines.
  • 1875. The Page Act, ostensibly passed to keep out prostitutes, was used to keep Chinese women out of the United States, representing various laws that would keep Asians out of the country. This episode also reflects the sexualized stereotypes of Asian women as dragon ladies, lotus blossoms and prostitutes.
  • 1869. The completion of the transcontinental railroad. Chinese workers build much of the Central Pacific Railroad, yet were excluded from the celebratory photographs at Promontory Point and treated hostilely.

As may already be evident, Choy addresses three themes throughout the work: violence, erasure, and resistance. I was aware of both the violence and resistance but Choy makes evident that strategies of erasure are not new, whether it is blocking the publication of photographs, the scrubbing of stories from our history books, or even overshadowing the celebration of the centenary of the gurdwara in Stockton, California with a brutal mass killing at another gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. She also makes us aware that perhaps the greatest tragedy is the “othering” of those who have contributed so much as Asian Americans. Choi gives us not only Asian American histories, but also histories of the United States that both confront us with our failures to live up to our highest ideals and the opportunities before us to do so.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

The Month in Reviews: September 2022

As baseball’s fall classic approaches, my reading in September included essays from Roger Angell bringing back memories of seasons in the early 1970’s and a new biography on the role of faith in Jackie Robinson’s struggle to integrate baseball and in his civil rights activism. I read two more Willa Cather books and marvel at her ability to paint with words. As mid-term elections approach, I read two books on politics, one so important that I selected it as my book of the month. Along with these, I finally got around to reading Richard Weaver’s classic Ideas Have Consequences, about which I had a mixed assessment. Wendell Berry’s The World-Ending Fire, captures the essence of Wendell Berry’s essays, constituting a collection of a number of his best. I also read delightfully informative and well-written books on the history of the Vikings and the making of vaccines. I find myself reading more mysteries of late and reviewed ones by Georges Simenon and Ngaio Marsh (her last, completed just weeks before her death at age 86). Of course there is always the mix of books on theology and the Christian life, ranging from a monograph on Jonathan Edwards, a discussion of four theological views of heaven, how Jesus “fought” peaceably, resisting the powers that be, during Passion Week and what loving one’s neighbor might look like in a metropolitan high-rise.

Five Seasons: A Baseball CompanionRoger Angell. New York: Open Road, 2013 (First published in 1977). Roger Angell essays covering the seasons of 1972 to 1976 that arguably transformed baseball into the sport it is today. Review

Ideas Have ConsequencesRichard M. Weaver. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 (first published in 1948, link is to expanded 2013 edition). An argument tracing the dissolution of Western society to the abandonment of philosophical realism for nominalism and what may be done to reverse that decline. Review

My Ántonia, Willa Cather (Foreword Kathleen Norris). Boston: Mariner, 1995 (Originally published in 1918, no publisher web link available). Jim Burden’s narrative of his relationship growing up on the prairie with Ántonia Shimerda, one he would live with throughout his life. Review

Maigret’s Pickpocket (Inspector Maigret), Georges Simenon (translated by Siân Reynolds). New York: Penguin, 2019 (originally published 1967). Maigret becomes much more acquainted with a pickpocket than he bargained for when the man contacts him and leads him to his wife’s body, a victim of murder. Review

Four View on Heaven (Counterpoints), John S. Feinberg (Contributor), J. Richard Middleton (Contributor), Michael Allen (Contributor), Peter Kreeft (Contributor), Michael E. Wittmer (General Editor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2022. Representatives of four different views on heaven respond to ten questions and each other’s responses. Review

The Religion of American GreatnessPaul D. Miller (Foreword by David French). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. A conservative’s critique of Christian nationalism, distinguishing it from patriotism, and making a case against it both biblically and as an illiberal theory that is at odds with the American experiment of a constitutional democratic republic. Review

My Vertical NeighborhoodLynda MacGibbon (Foreword by Michael Frost). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021. The author’s account of moving from a small eastern Canada town to a Toronto highrise and how strangers became neighbors that she learned to love. Review

Fight Like JesusJason Porterfield (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2022. A study of the accounts of Holy Week through the lens of how Jesus chose peace amid his ultimate confrontation with power. Review

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell BerryWendell Berry, Selected and with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2019. A collection of the essays, mostly focused on local culture, the care of places, and the hubris of technological solutions. Review

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the VikingsNeil Price. New York: Basic Books, 2020. A history based in archaeological research of the rise of the Vikings, their ways and beliefs, and their development as a trading, raiding, and invading power. Review

The Death of PoliticsPeter Wehner. New York: HarperCollins, 2019. A book that explores the noble calling of politics, the causes of the deep divisions reflected in the 2016 election and the years that followed, and what must be restored if the American experiment is to endure. Review

InalienableEric Costanzo, Daniel Yang, and Matthew Soerens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022. The three authors propose that voices from the margins and the kingdom-focused vision of service to the neighbor, even the most needy, may be the voices that bring renewal to the American church. Review

The Federal Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology), Gilsun Ryu, Foreword by Douglas A. Sweeney. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2021. A study of Jonathan Edwards federal theology, forming the basis of a theology of the history of redemption in three covenants, with a focus on Edward’s exegetical approach to this theology. Review

Death Comes for the ArchbishopWilla Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (first published in 1927). The story of two missionary priests from France and their labors over forty years to establish an archdiocese in the American Southwest. Review

Seven Brief Lessons on LanguageJonathan Dunne. Sofia, Bulgaria: Small Stations Press, 2023. Explores the spiritual significance embedded into the letters, sounds, and structure of our language. Review

Light ThickensNgaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2016 (originally published in 1982). Set once again at the Dolphin theatre as Peregrine Jay stages Macbeth, a play surrounded by superstition, a production plagued by macabre practical jokes, and the real murder of the title character discovered just after the play’s climactic scene, with Alleyn in the front row. Review

Strength for the Fight (Library of Religious Biography), Gary Scott Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022. A biography on this pioneer Hall of Famer who desegregated Major League Baseball, devoted his post-playing years to civil rights activism, all sustained by his active faith. Review

How To Make A VaccineJohn Rhodes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. A concise handbook discussing the science behind vaccine development, including an explanation of the different types of vaccines, including the various COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Review

Book of the Month. I chose Paul D. Miller’s The Religion of American Greatness because of the singular contribution it makes to the discussion of Christian nationalism. It is written by someone who easily could have been an exponent of Christian nationalism, having worked in the George W. Bush White House, served in Afghanistan, and the CIA. The book is not a progressive screed against the opposition but a scholarly work that seeks to appraise the appeal of Christian nationalism in terms that its partisans would agree with while taking issue with it as both a betrayal of the American experiment and of the kingdom vision of scripture in its reduction of God to a tribal god. I had the privilege of interviewing Paul Miller and hosting a lively online conversation with him recently. You may view it on YouTube.

Quote of the Month. As I mentioned above, I’ve reveled in Willa Cather’s writing. I love this quote from Death Comes for the Archbishop capturing both the beauty of the American Southwest and the missionary passion of the Archbishop:

“The base of the hill before which they stood was already in shadow, subdued to the tone of rich yellow clay, but the top was still melted gold–a colour that throbbed in the last rays of the sun. The Bishop turned away at last with a sigh of deep content. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘that rock will do very well. And now we must be starting home. Every time I come here, I like this stone better. I could hardly have hoped that God would gratify my personal taste, my vanity, if you will, in this way. I tell you, Blanchet, I would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity. The Cathedral is near my heart for many reasons. I hope you do not think me very worldly.’ “

What I’m Reading. There are two books I’ve finished, awaiting reviews: Catherine Ceniza Choy’s Asian American Histories of the United States, telling the story of multiple groups of Asian American and pivotal events for those communities through the stories of individuals, and Resisting the Marriage Plot, a study of four characters in Victorian literature who don’t conform to conventional expectations of marriage, and find strength for their choices in their faith. I’m enjoying Oliver Sacks Uncle Tungsten, describing his boyhood fascination with chemistry. Andrew Meier’s Morganthau chronicles four generations of this business dynasty and politically-connected family. After reviewing Reading Black Books, I picked up Richard Wright’s Native Son, which includes his essay on the inspiration for Bigger Thomas. Lore Ferguson Wilkins A Curious Faith is about living the questions God asks of us and we ask of God. Agents of Flourishing builds on Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling, getting very practical about how agents of the kingdom pursue flourishing in six areas.

At this time of the year, I delight in watching the squirrels gathering acorns from our oak tree for the winter ahead. I hope this list suggests some books you might squirrel away for the cooler weather and the long winter nights coming soon. Happy reading, friends!

The Month in Reviews is my monthly review summary going back to 2014! It’s a great way to browse what I’ve reviewed. The search box on this blog also works well if you are looking for a review of a particular book.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Scienceville

The second Scienceville High School

I wrote last week about The Sharonline neighborhood on Youngstown’s East Side. The name Scienceville came up and piqued my curiosity as well. The Scienceville neighborhood is just west of the Sharonline neighborhood, defined by the neighborhoods on either side of McGuffey Road west of Liberty toward Lansdowne, and those along Liberty, that were originally part of Coitsville Township until it was annexed into Youngstown in 1928. In some sources I looked at Scienceville, The Sharonline and McGuffey Heights are lumped together, but I also found evidence of each being distinctive neighborhoods.

But what about that name? Originally, the area was called Science Hill. As early as 1840, there was a Science Hill schoolhouse. Supposedly the name reflected an interest in science of the residents. The name was changed because there was another location in Ohio named Science Hill. So it became Scienceville. In 1906, the first Scienceville High School was built on the west side of Liberty Road between Cornwall and Fairfax, replacing the schoolhouse. In 1922, the second Scienceville High School was built across the street, with the first becoming an elementary school.

In 1945, Scienceville High School became North High School. Students thought the name Scienceville was unrecognizable in other parts of town, and eventually persuaded the Board of Education to change the name to North High School (odd because it is located on the East Side). In 1956, a new North High School opened on Mariner Avenue with the old building becoming a middle school, named Science Hill Junior High.

The “new” North High School, opened in 1956.

North High School was closed after the 1979-1980 class. The building has since been razed and is now the site of Martin Luther King Elementary. The sites of the first and second high schools are now vacant land. East Middle School is located just to the northeast of the elementary on Bryn Mawr and feeds into East High School.

The neighborhood consists of older 3 to 4 bedroom homes built between 1940 and 1969 with along with apartments. According to Neighborhood Scout, the neighborhood has one of the highest percentages of those of African ancestry (7.8 percent) and Puerto Rican ancestry (9.2 percent) of any neighborhood in the country.

There was always a group of Scienceville alumni who thought it a mistake to change the name to North. I won’t weigh in on that one, but I do think it does seem unfortunate that none of the schools bear this name. Community identity is powerful in uniting a neighborhood, and the history of Science Hill and the schools that occupied the area around Liberty Road seems worth recapturing.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: How To Make A Vaccine

How To Make A Vaccine, John Rhodes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.

Summary: A concise handbook discussing the science behind vaccine development, including an explanation of the different types of vaccines, including the various COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

There have been endless polemics for and against vaccines, especially in the years of COVID-19. This book is not one of those. Rather, it represents what I believe is good public science–explaining in terms that a thoughtful layperson may grasp the science behind vaccine development, particularly as it bears on the COVID-19 vaccines. John Rhodes is a research scientist from the UK who has held positions at both Cambridge and the NIH as well as working as director of strategy in immunology at GlaxoSmithKline from 2001 to 2007. Writing from outside the U.S. context he takes the reader step by step through the science while not drawing policy or personal conclusions for us, giving us space to step back from the debates and become learners.

He begins by discussing the pathogens vaccines fight, in this case, the coronavirus that causes COVID. In particular, he focuses on the target, ACE2 proteins to which the spikes on the virus affix themselves, and how this target of attack affects the body. Then he discusses the array of cells that make up our immune system including surveillance cells and different kind of B- and T-cells and how they interact both with pathogens and each other, and how the body manufactures cells with the specificity to kill each pathogen. We learn about the thymus, an organ that disappears in adults and its critical role in ramping up our immune system. And Rhodes discusses the crucial role of adjuvants in the vaccine material, chemical or microbial agents delivered with whatever form of vaccine material that helps the body identify it as foreign and intensifies the immune response, enhancing vaccine effectiveness.

Rhodes then turns to vaccines proper, and their discovery through the immunity relatively harmless cowpox confers on those exposed to smallpox. The name vaccine even arises from this, as vacca is the Latin for cow. The basic trick of every vaccine since is triggering the body to produce antibodies against an infection without introducing that infection. Two main ways (until recently) this was done was to either use dead virus or live attenuated virus, as was the case with the polio vaccines that turned summer from “polio season to just “summer.” Eventually additional approaches including viral vectors and various approaches using DNA and RNA material have been developed

Next, Rhodes walks us through the development process and the stages in that process:

  1. Exploratory: Studying the virus to determine what components to include to provoke a strong response to the virus without adverse reactions.
  2. Preclinical: Conducting tissue and animal studies to study effectiveness with different dosages and adjuvants.
  3. Phase I trials: These are human trials with small numbers to study the safety of the vaccine but also whether they provoke an effective response.
  4. Phase II trials: These are with larger groups continuing to study safety as well as dosage and adjuvant effects in producing an effective response.
  5. Phase III trials: These involve tens of thousands of subjects, continuing to look for even rare adverse reactions. Often these are done in regions with high infections to better establish the real-world effectiveness of the vaccine.
  6. Regulatory review and approval. Producers submit an application to certification agencies in each country, such a the FDA in the US. Even after certification, ongoing reporting occurs through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

He also discusses long term vaccine research, such as that on DNA and RNA vaccines that have been going on for twenty years, leading to their stunning effectiveness.

There were an unprecedented number of contenders for COVID-19 vaccines, representing the various types of vaccines already discussed: inactivated whole-virus vaccines, protein subunit vaccines (also non-living), live attenuated viruses, non-replicating viral vector vaccines, replicating viral vector vaccines, virus-like particle vaccines, and DNA and RNA vaccines. He describes how each works, the ways they interact with the immune system and where they were being developed. He also takes a chapter to warn us against magic bullets and the importance of therapeutics. The history of COVID since this book was written amply illustrates this point–with new variants that reduce (though not eliminate) vaccine effectiveness on one hand and a growing array of therapeutics.

While there has been much controversy surrounding vaccines, Rhodes focuses on the amazing story of how quickly a myriad of vaccine candidates entered trials and how vaccine campaigns began in many countries within a year of the discovery of the virus. It represented advances not only in the science of vaccine development but also unprecedented collaboration of scientists around the world and the clearing of administrative hurdles without compromising safety protocols.

There will always be the threat of dangerous pathogens and it is right to not count on “magic bullets.” But there is much to rejoice in as one learns about the immune system and the science of vaccines. Very few people die of the horror of tetanus or polio. Small pox only exists in freezers. New vaccines hold the promise of protection against malaria, a perennial killer in tropical climates. The research and collaborative steps taken in developing vaccines in record time that seriously reduced the threat of a pathogen novel to the human species seems to me worthy of celebration rather than opprobrium.

I found myself alternating between wonder and hope as I learned more about the science of vaccines. Perhaps it is time, in the aftermath of the pandemic and when the arguments and polemics have quieted, to learn about our amazing bodies, about the dangers novel pathogens pose, and the progress human ingenuity has made to give us the tools to fend off those dangers. This book is a good place to start.

Review: Strength for the Fight

Strength for the Fight (Library of Religious Biography), Gary Scott Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022.

Summary: A biography on this pioneer Hall of Famer who desegregated Major League Baseball, devoted his post-playing years to civil rights activism, all sustained by his active faith.

As a lifelong baseball fan, this is not the first Jackie Robinson biography I’ve read. The one I read when I was a young fan focused on his exploits on the field, his courage and restraint in breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and how his play contributed to several pennants and a World Series victory. As this book makes clear, Robinson not only needed to be both courageous and self-controlled to face racist treatment, he needed to be good–and he was. He was fast and daring on the base paths, a great fielder, and could deliver hits and bunts in clutch situations. He was a great all-round ballplayer deserving of Hall of Fame status simply on those merits.

This book added to the portrait of Robinson in several ways. Most importantly, it reveals him as a man of deep faith, who like Augustine had a godly mother and his own Ambrose in the form of a Methodist pastor, Karl Downs, who rescued him from gang life in Pasadena. Later, as he faces intense pressure and vitriol, he testifies, “Many nights I get down on my knees and pray for the strength not to fight back.” This and the support of his wife Rachel made all the difference for a proud man whose natural instinct was to fight back. Yet Smith also shows how Rachel went beyond standing by Robinson to pursue her own career as a nurse-therapist and professor.

Gary Scott Smith also fleshes out the vital role Branch Rickey played in Robinson’s life. Smith goes into the Methodist faith the two men shared, a critical factor in Rickey deciding to sign Robinson. Rickey was both a deeply religious man in Smith’s account and a sharp (and parsimonious) baseball entrepreneur. It was Rickey’s counsel he followed in not fighting back against spiking, knockdown pitches, and crude racial insults. When Rickey died in 1965 he said of Rickey: “He talked with me and treated me like a son.” The treatment of Rickey is so interesting that I would love to see Smith follow up this book with a full length biography on Rickey, perhaps as part of this Library of Religious Biography series.

What also distinguishes this book is the account it gives of Robinson’s post-baseball career as a tireless activist for civil rights through newspaper columns that did not hesitate to criticize presidents of either party, through public addresses including messages in hundreds of churches, marching on the front lines in places like Selma. At the same time, Robinson was not a “movement activist.” While honored by the NAACP with its Spingarn award, he did not hesitate to differ with others like Paul Robeson over communism or Dr. King over Vietnam. Some accused him of being an “Uncle Tom” for his relationship with Nelson Rockefeller, motivated by both political and business considerations, and his support in 1960 for Richard Nixon.

Vietnam would contribute to tragedy in Robinson’s life. His son Jackie, Jr. returned with addiction problems but the book makes clear the strains on the father-son relationship between the two. Sadly, just as Jackie, Jr. started to get his life on track as well as his relationship with his father, he died in an auto accident, just a year before Jackson himself passed.

That leads to my one question about this book, that the author doesn’t discuss how such a fine athlete as Robinson died at age 53, just sixteen years after retirement, suffering from diabetes, heart disease, and nearly blind. Others have discussed the disparate impacts of racism on health and the effects of his repressed anger and racial traumas on his health. Pictures of Robinson show him with hair turning white in his last playing years. Robinson bore on his body in many ways, externally and internally, the trauma of racism, and perhaps this might have been further developed in this work.

Smith portrays Robinson’s faith as “muscular,” and apart from those bedside prayers concerned more about moral and social uplift of his people, expressed in his tireless work. Even in his last years, with failing health, he was grateful for God’s blessings. Yet, he was infrequent in church attendance, and Smith notes the evidence of extra-marital affairs. After his first two years, he was more aggressive in defending himself on the field, having fulfilled his agreement with Rickey. Yet there is a thread running through the course of his life, shown by Smith of a faith that sustained and strengthened Robinson. What resulted was some of the most significant civil rights leadership in the twentieth century delivered in the form of a stellar athlete (no one since has stolen home more than the 19 times he did this) and a courageous champion. His faith, courage, and perseverance are worth emulation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Light Thickens

Light Thickens, Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2016 (originally published in 1982).

Summary: Set once again at the Dolphin theatre as Peregrine Jay stages Macbeth, a play surrounded by superstition, a production plagued by macabre practical jokes, and the real murder of the title character discovered just after the play’s climactic scene, with Alleyn in the front row.

This is the last Chief Inspector Alleyn mystery by Ngaio Marsh, completed in 1982 when she was 86 and just weeks before her passing. She returns to the scene of an earlier murder, the Dolphin theatre, as the accomplished Peregrine Jay undertakes one of the most audacious productions, and one surrounded by superstition–Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The superstition is that it is ill luck for any production members to mention the play by name or speak its lines elsewhere than in rehearsal or performance.

Jay has assembled an brilliant, but eccentric cast. The title character is played Dougal MacDougal, a true Scot and a vain one at that. Both he and his opposite, Simon Morten, who plays Macduff are real-life rivals for the affections of Margaret Mannering, who plays Lady Macbeth. Gaston Sears, who plays Seyton, has an obsession with arms, including the Claidheamh Mòr (emphatically not a claymore according to him), a wickedly sharp two edged sword used in the climactic fight between Macbeth and Macduff. He choreographs and trains them in the fight.

Banquo is played by Bruce Barrabell, a union leader and participant in fringe causes, and has a connection to the child actor, William Smith, who plays Macbeth’s son. William’s father was an insane murderer who killed by decapitation. The most superstitious is Nina Gaythorne as Lady Macduff, although Rangi, a Maori actor and one of the Three Witches rivals her.

A series of incidents arouse superstitions during rehearsals. A costume decapitated head is found in a bag during a rehearsal, and later under a covered platter. A warning message about William and his father is found on the manager’s typewriter. Then the opening weeks of the performance come off flawlessly to acclaim. That is, until Alleyn has front row seats, compliments of the house, after having provided security for some royals attending an earlier performance, and realizes as the climactic scene concludes that something has gone horribly wrong and Dougal MacDougal is really dead, and in the manner of his denouement as Macbeth.

It’s obvious that a number could have a motive and Marsh keeps us guessing until the end while Alleyn methodically interviews witnesses. Yet there is something off in the chronology. There wasn’t enough time for any of the suspects to commit the murder…or was there?

One of the most interesting themes is that of not charging children with the sins of their parents. There are several turns during which William is allowed to shine as his own person, and to be encouraged with the prospects of his future rather than haunted by his father’s past acts. In this, Marsh invites us to heed the better angels of our nature, and to believe the best of others.

Whether this was one of Marsh’s best, I will leave to others. All I will say is that she concluded her last act well.

Review: Seven Brief Lessons on Language

Seven Brief Lessons on Language, Jonathan Dunne. Sofia, Bulgaria: Small Stations Press, 2023.

Summary: Explores the spiritual significance embedded into the letters, sounds, and structure of our language.

When I was young, the host of a local children’s program took the initials of a child having a birthday that day and turned it into an amusing drawing. I felt there was something of that sort going on with this book, but I could not say that I was amused with the letter play in this book and the supposed spiritual truths the author found in the vowels and consonants and words of our language.

The book is patterned on one by Carlo Rovelli titled Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. The book consists of seven short readings and a postscript. The author believes our language is encoded with spiritual truth for those whose eyes are opened, and through these “lessons,” the author proposes to offer the insights that will open our eyes.

The first chapter is on the alphabet, the vowels and consonants, how they are formed, phonetic pairs of consonants (important to the ideas he develops) and their connection to breath, water, and flesh. A clue to what he would be doing comes early, when through a series of transpositions he connects breath, water, and flesh to “father,” the one who speaks all into existence. Subsequent chapters reflect on the Alpha and Omega, the “I” that is both “I am” and the sinful human ego that needs to go from I to O, the One who is Three, Love, Believe, and Translate.

Here’s a brief example from the chapter on the Trinity of the kind of language play one encounters throughout the book:

“As when we place three Os together, we get G O D, so when we place three Is together we get I l l. We become ill when we are apart from God, when we turn our back on him(p.53).

All of this seems clever letter and word play in service of a book on spirituality. The method seems to me arbitrary, and one that could be used to say almost anything. Also, much of the book focuses on the English alphabet and words while treating with spiritual concepts that are transcultural.

I assume the sincerity of the writer, and would agree with many of the spiritual insights as a fellow Christian. But the method would have us looking for phonetic clues to reveal spiritual meaning rather than the plain meanings of the words of the scriptures and the creeds, which feels more of “Gnostic” or hidden knowledge than Christian.

The book also felt a bit of a “bait and switch,” at least it’s title, modeled as it is on Rovelli’s book which really is on physics. These really are not, except perhaps for the first, lessons on language but spiritual reflections drawing upon the author’s wordplay.

For those who truly value language and its power to unveil spiritual reality, I would commend the works of Marilyn McEntyre <https://www.marilynmcentyre.com/books>. As for this, I would take a pass.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Review: Death Comes For The Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (first published in 1927).

Summary: The story of two missionary priests from France and their labors over forty years to establish an archdiocese in the American Southwest.

It is in the time when the United States took possession of lands in the American Southwest that were formerly part of Mexico. Two Catholic missionaries from France working in Sandusky, Ohio, Fathers Joseph Vallant and Jean Marie LaTour are assigned to establish a new diocese in New Mexico, with LaTour being named as Bishop of the new diocese. Much of this work revolves around the relationship between these two men, who were friends from boyhood, and the respective gifts of each, both necessary to the work to which they’d been assigned. Vallant, less physically attractive and refined is utterly passionate in his care for the people of the new diocese, often going on extended journeys, and on several instances, becoming ill and nearly dying, only to be retrieved and cared for by LaTour.

By contrast, LaTour is the more reserved and intellectual and astute in his perceptions, knowing when to be patient and how to exercise his authority without being authoritarian. He is the architect of the diocese, both in identifying where to expand and recruiting new priests and nuns to the work, and in fulfilling his vision of a Midi Romanesque cathedral that would fit the desert landscape in which it would be set. Eventually, to his sadness and Vallant’s joy, he sends Vallant to Colorado and the mining camps to establish a new diocese, gaining the title of archbishop but parting with his mission partner of forty years.

Cather portrays the arduous work of these men. We trace the year long journey from Ohio to Galveston aboard riverboat and ship, losing most of their baggage in a shipwreck. Then comes an overland journey across Texas to Santa Fe. We experience the dangers of this land, from getting lost in the trackless hills as occurs to LaTour at one point, to the lawless Buck Scales, from whom the priests are saved by his abused wife Magdalena, who warns them by sign that he intends to kill them as he has others. Scales is tried, hanged and Magdalena redeemed, in part through the aid of Kit Carson, with whom LaTour forges a relationship of great mutual respect.

Bishop LaTour must deal with both the Spanish history of his diocese and the native peoples within it. We see his skillful handling of Spanish priests whose practices differ and are loved by the people, sometimes waiting for them to pass, in other instances, as in Father Martinez, removing him when he refuses to repent from his position of repudiating celibacy in doctrine and practice, allowing Martinez’ schismatic movement to die with him. He unsuccessfully takes issue with his friend Carson over what was, in the end, futile removal of the Navajo people. Cather portrays a churchman who both operates within the realities of the American occupation of the land while prioritizing the spiritual mission and its care for all the people within its diocese.

As in her other works, Cather paints with words as in this passage where LaTour shows the mission-minded Vallant the hill with rock that is perfect for LaTour’s envisioned cathedral:

“The base of the hill before which they stood was already in shadow, subdued to the tone of rich yellow clay, but the top was still melted gold–a colour that throbbed in the last rays of the sun. The Bishop turned away at last with a sigh of deep content. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘that rock will do very well. And now we must be starting home. Every time I come here, I like this stone better. I could hardly have hoped that God would gratify my personal taste, my vanity, if you will, in this way. I tell you, Blanchet, I would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity. The Cathedral is near my heart for many reasons. I hope you do not think me very worldly.’ “

The outing exposes the differences between the two men with “Father Vallant…still wondering why he had been called home from saving souls in Arizona and why a poor missionary Bishop should care so much about a building.” Yet both are necessary–Father Vallant saving souls and Bishop LaTour planting gardens and fruit orchards and establishing, in the best sense, the institutions and spiritual center of the Church in this outpost diocese, eventually to become an archdiocese through the labors of these two men.

From beginning to the end of this work when death indeed comes for the archbishop, this is a work of understated beauty, whether in capturing the partnership of these two men, their long faithfulness in to their mission, or the peoples and landscape where all this played out. In it, in contrast to works like O Pioneers! or My Antonia, one sees two strong male characters, also pioneers, but in a very different setting, showing Cather’s artistic range.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Sharonline

Sign erected in 2015 at intersection of McGuffey and Jacobs Roads

I was asked a question yesterday about The Sharonline neighborhood on Youngstown’s East side. Until a few years ago, I was unaware of this neighborhood. I first learned of it when I wrote a post on sides of town and the different neighborhoods on each side of town. But I still didn’t know much about it, which is how I end up writing many of these articles.

So where is The Sharonline? The Sharonline Page demarcates the area as bounded on the north by Hubbard, on the south by McKelvey Lake, on the west by Lansdowne Boulevard and on the east by State Route 616. The Youngstown Neighborhood Development map below sets the west boundary further east following Early, McGuffey, and Jacobs Road.

Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation “East Side Planning District

So why is this neighborhood called “The Sharonline”? In the early twentieth century, there were street car connections between many cities.  The Youngstown-Sharon Railway and Light Co. operated a street car or trolley line between Youngstown and Sharon that ran along Jacobs Road. It was known as the Sharonline, and so was the neighborhood that was growing up around this street car line. Youngstown, Campbell, and Sharon were rapidly growing steel towns and The Sharonline was well-located between these industrial centers.

The earliest residents were Irish immigrants. Soon, though, the Italian community became and remained dominant for many years. Later the neighborhood became predominantly Black and Latino. City planners thought that this more rural area of Youngstown would develop with a growing population. Instead, the population moved to the suburbs, with decline accelerating after the closure of the steel mills.

There was a lot of pride among the residents of the neighborhood, even though it was materially poor for many years. The McGuffey Centre was, and to a certain extent, still is the community center. The Centre opened in 1939 and moved into its new building in 1960. In its heyday, it offered an array of recreation programs for youth while also serving parents and seniors (with COVID, the center has lacked the staff for youth programming, focusing more on the adult and senior population).

But gatherings were hardly limited to the McGuffey Centre. It was not uncommon for someone with a large basement to host “five cent socials,” where everyone chipped in a nickel for pop, hot dogs, and burgers. When television came on the scene, the first in the neighborhood would have everyone in the neighborhood in their living room. And like many Youngstown neighborhoods, the discipline of children was a neighborhood, Two former residents recalled in a Vindicator story:

When an adult saw you doing something wrong, they got after you right there and it was guaranteed that your parents knew whatever you had done before you made it home. It was one large, extended family.

Since 1989, even though residents had moved away, they come together with current residents for a tri-annual Sharonline reunion. The most recent was this past August.

Beyond the McGuffey Centre, local congregations, the East Side Library, and the schools host and offer a number of community programs.

Around 4,000 people currently live in The Sharonline neighborhood. The Northeast Homeowners and Concerned Citizens Association (NHCCA) functions both as an information hub through their Facebook page and community organization working with homeowners to improve the neighborhood.

Because of its shrinking population and problems with people coming into the area and dumping garbage, the city has worked with community to “decommission” abandoned areas by razing homes and allowing the reversion to nature of these areas. The NHCCA has created two pocket parks and four other corner landscaped lots along McGuffey Road. Taking advantage of what was once farmland, Master Gardeners train community members in growing their own food.

It strikes me that the area has the potential to be a second recreation area, beside Mill Creek MetroPark after the city’s acquisition of McKelvey Lake. With the nearby McGuffey Wildlife Preserve, Bailey Park and other rural land, it seems that the area has natural assets that could draw people into the area. So much seems to hinge on continuing to cultivate the community pride that has characterized The Sharonline to address neighborhood renewal, reducing crime, and creating successful local businesses.

There are many people who thought The Sharonline neighborhood a great place to grow up. It appears there is a good network of people who are working to make it a good place. I have enjoyed learning about The Sharonline neighborhood and hope I hear more good things about it!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!